Sunday, January 23, 2011

Q&A with The Lit Coach

Welcome to another session of Q&A with The Lit Coach! I've rounded up several great questions from TLCG readers this month never before discussed on the blog. So let's dig in...

Q: "I've been querying my completed books as a memoir, even though I despise the notion and don't really think it is a "memoir."

On occasion I query it as nonfiction narrative, but this bothered some agents. On your blog, you call Sedaris's work "humorous essay," and frankly that is the best descriptor I've heard. Is this a common term in your profession, is it well received in the literary community?

And for the 64 million dollar question: Do you think humorous essay is more marketable than memoir?"

A: Maybe this is an American thing, but the word "memoir" sounds so dramatic and...fancy. You can practically hear the word roll off the tongue of an A list movie star, high society maven or Pulitzer Prize winning author the way the French intended. As in, "You'll read about it in my memoirs."

Let me demystify the word for you right now. Memoir means: "a record of events written by a person having intimate knowledge of them and based on personal observation." Sounds totally un-magical and un-sexy, right? Almost clinical. So not fancy.

So, really, anyone can write a memoir. But not every memoir is marketable and some popular memoir topics move in and out of vogue. I've spoken with several agents this year who've said they've seen enough "survivor stories," as in surviving abuse, cancer, horrible accidents, painful childhoods, etc. While one or more of these incidents may happen within a memoir, they don't want it to be the entire focus because they feel the market is saturated. This, of course, will change in time.

"Narrative Nonfiction" (or even "Creative Nonfiction") is a term popular in writing workshops, and you're right, most agents don't really use the term, or look favorably upon it. In general, it's too broad. Avoid it.

As far as "humorous essay" goes, your work would fit within the genre should your writing be uniquely funny and does not follow a linear path, per se, whereas memoir is more linear and story driven. Both genres are marketable. You just have to make sure you know where you fit before you query. Also, pay attention to the type of memoir agents are taking on: travel memoir; food driven memoir; friend/family driven memoir, etc. This takes some digging. My best suggestion is for you to research what agents are taking on at Publishers Marketplace, see where your work will best fit and query as such. And last but not least, keep your memoir factual.

Good luck!

Q: " Let's say an author publishes their own novel and it doesn't sell particularly well. The writer then decides to take a crack at traditional publishing with the same novel. When querying agents, should the writer mention that the novel has already been self-published, even if it's not selling well? Or is it better to wait until the agent has gotten interested in the manuscript before he/she admits to it?"

A: It would be especially wise for a writer to disclose any information about their previously self-published work within the query to an agent or editor because they'll find out anyway, should they be interested. If your sales were poor, don't dwell on it. Just state the sales figure (how many copies sold) and focus more on the high praise your work has received. Provide copy for agents of the great blurbs your book has garnered. Give them a list of your author appearances, signings and radio interviews, etc. Keep your focus PR related.

Don't have great reviews/blurbs/PR events OR sales? Time to get to work. As an author, you MUST sell your book. Your traditional publisher will expect nothing less. Start online and explore your options with all the social media outlets available to you to just get your name out. Get to know your online community. Make friends. Then start getting to know people in your own back yard. Seek out any opportunity to sell your book locally. When you've saturated your home town market, head next door. Keep going. Keep selling.

How many copies do you need to sell of your self-published book to gain the interest of an agent? With fiction you want to shoot for 2500 copies minimum within a year of publication. Nonfiction, shoot for 5,000 minimum. These are very modest print runs at traditional publishing houses. Anything less will doubtfully be considered.

Hope that clears it up, Cathy!

Q: " I have gotten the attention of an agent. Which is great and I'm over the moon about it. However, it feels a bit premature. I have been asked to provide 60 sample pages and a proposal. I eagerly agreed to provide the requested material. I then gave myself a deadline that, in hindsight, was rather unrealistic. Furthermore, I let the agent know the deadline, so that she knew when to expect what she was requesting. I now have the pages completed, and they're within the deadline, but they don't reflect my best work. How do I ensure I don't squander this opportunity? Is it better to send what I have so that she knows I'm responsible and can meet deadlines or do I ask her wait so I can submit the work I'm capable of?"

A: Oh, dear. You're in a spot. (Not really, readers, because I responded to her right was a literary now, Kelly, the long answer).

There is so much to learn here, writers. First, yes, it's great when an agent shows interest in your work (in Kelly's case, a blog), and wants to see more. While it's a golden opportunity for possible representation, I want you to do two things: 1) Research this agent. Do you like the books they've sold? Do they have a good reputation? Do they charge fees of any kind beyond copying/postage expenses? Your answers should be: yes; yes; no. After speaking with them, do you LIKE them? Were they polite? Did they respect your time? Answers should be: yes; yes: yes! And 2) Provided they seem like a good fit for you, be realistic about your turnaround time. If you're mid-blog, you likely still need to map out your blog direction not to mention YOUR direction as a writer. You not only need to take time to consider the creative direction of your book and the more technical aspects of your proposal, but your writing career as well. If you remember nothing else, remember: under promise, over deliver!

And any good agent will never fault you for taking some extra time to polish your work. They WANT it to be great! Just be honest with them.

Hope that helps, Kelly!

Thank you for your questions, writers. I love hearing your success stories, too, so keep me posted!

Have a fruitful week!



  1. Thank you so much for answering my question! and what a great answer too. I loved the acknowledgment that some of us elevate the term "memoir" (perhaps) necessarily. Given me a lot to think about, if only I could ponder my circumstance from a chic Parisian hotel overlooking the Seine. Oh well. Los Angeles isn't bad, and there is less dog-doo on the sidewalks here.

  2. I guess you'll have to settle for The Chateau Marmont and see if you can spot The LA river from the hills.


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